Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Born May 22, 1813, Leipzig. Died February 13, 1883, Venice.
Wagner began his opera Tristan and Isolde on October 1, 1857, and completed the scoring in August 1859. The first performance was given on June 10, 1865, in Munich. The prelude had already been performed in concert in Prague on March 12, 1859; the first American performance of the prelude was given at a Thomas Symphony Soiree in New York, February 10, 1866; Theodore Thomas also conducted the first American performance of the "finale," or Liebestod, on February 10, 1866, in New York. The score calls for three flutes, two oboes and english horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, harp, and strings. Perfomance time is approximately eighteen minutes.
On January 25, 1860, in Paris, Richard Wagner conducted a concert of his own music, including the prelude to Tristan and Isolde, for an audience that contained Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Gounod, and the poet Baudelaire, who often is said to have launched modern literature just as his contemporary Richard Wagner opened the door on modern music with the first notes of Tristan and Isolde.
Baudelaire was captivated by Wagner's music that evening and wrote to the composer "of being engulfed, overcome, a really voluptuous sensual pleasure, like rising into the air or being rocked on the sea." The press, on the other hand, had a field day ridiculing music that was obviously well beyond their understanding, and even Berlioz, whose perception and brilliance as a critic nearly rivaled his vision and genius as a composer, had to admit that he could make no sense whatever of the prelude.
The Paris concert, like those in Zurich in 1853, and others still to come in Vienna, Munich, and London, was devised to raise money and consciousness—to further the Wagner cause. Wagner willingly played not only the overtures and preludes to his operas, but also salient excerpts (without voices) from the music dramas themselves in order to pay his bills. Even as late as 1877—Wagner was sixty-four and famous beyond measure for Tristan and his new Ring cycle he agreed to conduct eight entire evenings of fragments from his operas, recognizing that even musical gods can be forced to file Chapter Eleven.
The performance history of the prelude to Tristan and Isolde in concert is older than the opera itself. The prelude was first performed in Prague in March 1859—more than six years before the premiere of the opera under the baton of Hans von Bülow, who had already dedicated much of his talent and energy to Wagner and would soon donate his wife Cosima as well. Wagner also conducted the prelude, along with the music that would become its regular concert companion, the Liebestod the final scene of the opera—before the Munich premiere.
Never before, and arguably not since, have so few pages of music had such impact. As a measure of their force, consider that even a fellow pioneer like Berlioz, whose own Symphonie fantastique had unsettled the musical world thirty years earlier, could not come to terms with this daring and unconventional work. Berlioz wrote of "... a slow piece, beginning pianissimo, rising gradually to fortissimo, and then subsiding into the quiet of the opening, with no other theme than a sort of chromatic moan, but full of dissonances."
His words are as unfeeling, cautious, and noncommittal as those of many a critic writing today about tough and unusual new music. In 1860, Tristan and Isolde, of course, was tough and unusual new music, and, although it has lost its shock appeal in the past 135 years, it still carries an emotional force virtually unmatched in music. Berlioz was right to point out the chromaticism and dissonance, for Wagner's treatment of both was startlingly new. The now-famous "Tristan chord—the first harmony m the prelude—with its heart-rending unresolved dissonance, instantly opened new harmonic horizons for composers, not as an isolated event similar chords can be found in Mozart, Liszt, and even in music by Bülow but in the way it unlocks a web of harmonic tensions that will not, in the complete opera, be resolved for hours, not in fact until the final cadences of the Liebestod. That music—sung in the opera by Isolde but often played in the concert hall without a soprano—picks up and completes the interrupted Liebesnacht, or "night of love" from the second act of the opera; now Tristan lies dead in Isolde's arms. The Liebestod brings not only resolution but, in Wagner's words, transfiguration.